More than half of British airline pilots say they have been attacked by lasers in the past year, a survey has revealed.
Figures showing the number of incidents in which hand-held lasers have been shone into the cockpits of aircraft while they are landing or taking off have prompted calls for the devices to be treated as “offensive weapons”.
A survey of 810 pilots commissioned by the British Airline Pilots Association (Balpa) found that 55% of respondents had experienced a laser attack in the past 12 months and 4% had suffered six or more.
Sales of hand-held lasers have rocketed in recent years. They are legitimately bought by business people and lecturers wanting to use them for presentations and amateur astronomers who use the beams to pinpoint stars.
Official figures from the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) show reports of lasers being shone at aircraft in the UK have risen from 746 in 2009 to 1,442 in 2014 — equivalent to about four laser incidents each day.
The Balpa survey reveals that the true number may be even higher, as a significant number of pilots do not report attacks. Balpa, which has 8,699 members, said that the CAA was notified of fewer than two-thirds of incidents.
“I got hit by a green laser and it lit up the whole cockpit,” said one pilot, who asked not to be named.
The incident took place as his aircraft was coming in to land at 1,000ft. “I was looking straight ahead and it came from my right-hand side.
“It was pretty startling, but we carried on and landed. I was lucky that it wasn’t shone directly at me and I wasn’t looking that way.”
Last year a British Airways pilot sustained a burnt retina and has been unable to fly after a laser was shone into his eyes as his aircraft prepared to land at Heathrow.
Jim McAuslan, Balpa’s general secretary, said that if the devices were powerful enough to hit a plane, they should be banned. “Shining a laser into a cockpit can temporarily blind the pilots, often for some time, putting the aircraft and its passengers at needless risk.
“We believe all but the lowest-powered lasers should be strongly regulated, and treated as offensive weapons,” he said.
Aviation experts believe that most of the culprits are youngsters, although only a handful of people have been prosecuted since shining a light at an aircraft became an offence in 2010.
In October, Liam Chadwick, 28, was jailed for six months after he pointed a £1 laser pen from his top-floor flat in Cardiff at aircraft taking off from Bristol. The pilots of a Ryanair jet and Thomson charter aircraft had to alter their flight paths over the Bristol Channel to avoid the beams.
Powerful military-grade lasers are easily available on the internet. One device, which was last week being sold on eBay from a supplier in America, had a range of 10 miles and cost just under £6. The internet retailer also offered a “military-grade powerful laser pen” for 99p, plus £1.99 postage, and a red laser pointer with a one-mile range for £2.89.
The auction website said that it complied with the law and that laser pointers were on sale with many retailers, both in shops and online. The site lists eight “important safety tips”, including not shining laser beams at faces or eyes — or aircraft.
The Balpa survey also raises concerns over pilots’ tiredness. Nearly four in 10 (39%) said their abilities had been compromised by tiredness at least once a month. This included 14% who said their abilities had been affected by fatigue about once a week. Only 51% believed a decision not to fly because they were too tired would be supported by their airline chief executive.
There were also problems highlighted with pilot training. Only 49% of pilots said that their airline gave them enough time in flight simulators to improve their manual handling skills, and only 51% said they were confident that pilots were adequately trained to recover aircraft manually from a high-altitude emergency.
UK pilots generally spend two four-hour sessions in the flight simulator every six months, but much of the time is spent training for emergencies that may occur during take-off or landing or practising flying in low visibility.
Dave Smith, a retired BA 747 captain, said airline pilots had limited opportunities in the simulator to practise taking control of their aircraft at high altitude: “Airlines have cut training to the bare minimum. It’s a cost — simulators are very expensive.”
The CAA said: “Pilots undergo continuous training and development, especially in relation to the manual recovery from unusual situations.”